Ask Paula: Overcoming Perfectionism

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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!

Spy Kids: Secret codes for gifted kids

Source: PBS/NOVA

As a kid,  there’s nothing more thrilling than speaking or writing in a language your parents can’t understand. Add the challenge of creating and deciphering your very own secret code, and you’ve got an irresistible and mind-bending activity for gifted students.

Deciphering codes requires looking for patterns everywhere, and it’s somewhat mind-boggling how important this process of searching for and defining patterns and relationships is to everything we do.  It forms the basis of language, mathematics, science, and even art and music.

The starting point for many children are basic substitution codes such as alphanumeric codes (1=A, 2=B, etc.) and Morse Code.  Studying and “playing” with these codes can help younger children develop their language, reading, and spelling skills as well as their problem-solving strategies.

Studying codes is also an excellent example of an activity that can fulfill the need that many gifted students have for tasks that increase in complexity the deeper they dig!  Codes are at the heart of the concept of algebraic functions in mathematics; the development of scientific explanations and predictions based on patterns of observations in the natural world; rhythm and pitch in music, geometric transformations and the organization of space in art, computer programming, and genetic sequencing.

Maybe your gifted child has already begun “speaking in code.” Where do you start in helping your child cultivate their own code books (even if they don’t tell you what it means)?

Here are some  resources to help you keep up with your child’s secret code enthusiasm:

Learn about the fascinating history behind famous secret codes:

A do-it-at home activity for making your very own secret code:

How to write in super-secret invisible ink:

Real World Secret Codes:

Decoding Ancient Languages: Hieroglyphs:

Patterns and Fibonacci Numbers in Nature:

Decoding DNA:

For secret agents looking to create and break a variety of challenging codes, visit .

Hungry for more? Check out our new summer Math Studio course, “Codes and Spies”,  which integrates math problems and concepts with fun, critical thinking activities like solving puzzles, finding patterns in music, and building a Rube-Goldberg machine. “Codes and Spies” is for students completing Kindergarten through Grade 3, and will be offered afternoons in Chicago and Skokie, IL on July 9-13. Find more information here.

Has your child caught on to the “spy” phenomenon? What is their favorite secret code?

Insatiable Minds

Any parent of a gifted child will tell you that their kids’ insatiable curiosity can be both amazing and overwhelming. It can be a challenge for a busy parent to ensure that the child’s hunger for learning is met. What to do?

 We’ve gathered some  links to child-friendly resources parents can use to feed those sponge-like minds! Each has been tested by CTD Research Director (and parent to gifted children), Dana Turner Thomson.

1. The Annenberg LearnerThis free, monthly newsletter is filled to the brim with timely historical facts, current events, and fun science articles, like “Why Snowflakes Have Six Sides.”

2. Let’s Explore: All kinds of hands-on, educational activities for big imaginations.

3. Here There Everywhere:  A current events site with stories for and about kids. “I often print out an article for them that I know they will enjoy and leave it by their breakfast bowls so they can ‘read the paper’ while having breakfast,” Dana says. (Check out this piece about two Canadian teenagers who sent a Lego man into space, while still managing to finish their homework.)

Looking for more? Stay tuned. We’ll continue to post resources here on Talent Talk, as well as on our Facebook page and on Twitter.

How do you feed your gifted child’s insatiable curiosity? Feel free to share links and resources that you enjoy.

Defining “Gifted” From School to School: “Ask Paula”, February 2012

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 motivate a gifted learner to try new things, and educating children who are both gifted and have learning disabilities.

Q:  How does one get a school to take learning disabilities seriously in a gifted child who is performing above grade level? Also, how do you get help for a child who is gifted at one school but doesn’t make the “cut” for the gifted program at another school? -Pamela 

A: Getting detailed information about the achievement of your child, relative to his or her advanced abilities, is one of the ways to bring attention to the possible existence of a learning disability along with giftedness. It is this mismatch between ability and achievement that defines learning disabilities. The mismatch may not be obvious for a child who is performing above grade level expectations in the classroom. Typically, you would need an evaluation by a psychologist who is trained in giving cognitive and psychological assessments to children, is experienced in reading and interpreting patterns of test data, and is knowledgeable about the complexities involved in working with gifted, learning disabled children. In your case, a psychologist who is knowledgeable about twice-exceptionality is especially critical because above grade level performance is not typically associated with a learning disability, but can be for a highly gifted child. A battery of tests may be costly and takes time, but could provide the best evidence about the existence of both giftedness and a specific learning disability. The website of the National Association for Gifted Children has some position papers on twice-exceptionality that might be helpful to you and also to teachers and administrators at your child’s school.

Regarding the issue of the changing definition of giftedness across schools, this is very frustrating. Because the field does not have a single definition of giftedness and because schools can vary so much in the characteristics of the children they serve, this is an all too common experience for families of gifted children. I would recommend that you provide some evidence of what your child was able to do within the gifted program at his or her previous school, including a recommendation or evaluation from the gifted program teachers–as well as detailed information about the curriculum. The key here is to demonstrate that despite different entrance criteria, your child is well suited for the gifted program in the new school. If you child was successful in an advanced class in the previous school, information about the class and his or her performance might help administrators at the new school determine that their gifted program is also a good fit for your child. You might also ask whether the new school would be open to a “trial placement” in the gifted program, meaning letting your child into the program and assessing, through his performance, if it is a good placement for him or her. A final possibility is to submit or obtain through private testing, any additional information about your child’s abilities or achievement that would help with a placement decision.

Q: How do you motivate a child who is profoundly gifted in one area to still put in effort in weaker areas or areas of less interest? -Shannon 

A: I think the best way to motivate a child to work in his or her “weaker” area is to show him the importance of that area for high level performance in his or her area of strength. So, if you child is very interested in math and science, and does not like to write, talk to him about how scientists have to write journal articles and grant proposals and how important writing is to being a successful scientist. Similarly, if you child is interested in art, but says he or she hates math, show him the connection between the two–perhaps through reading about architecture or talking with an architect. If your child loves to write creatively and complains about studying math or science, show him or her examples of fiction that combine science and math with amazing stories. The best approach here is to help children see the connections between various disciplines and to stress, through examples of people or various jobs, how individuals who are creative producers or innovators need to be well versed in multiple disciplines.

Do you have a question for Paula? Leave it in the comments below, or on our Facebook page.