Sunday, July 21, 2013

Gifted children and the overachievement fallacy

"All it takes to be gifted is hard work. Those gifted children are such high achievers; that’s why they do so well in school. Their parents push them; that’s how they’ve gotten so far." Comments like these are pervasive, and overheard in schools, neighborhoods, and online discussions.

The accomplishments of gifted children are often falsely attributed to overachievement. The notion is that mastery primarily stems from overachievement rather than innate ability. These children are viewed as serious and goal-directed, their efforts driven by hard work, parental coaching or outside pressure. This view is held by both parents and teachers alike who fail to grasp the meaning of giftedness.

The media and recent bestsellers have perpetuated this belief. Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” described a parent’s effort to encourage achievement at all costs, and Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: The Story of Success” proposes that hard work and practice are more critical to success than innate ability. The backlash against ability grouping in schools further highlights the assumption that we are all alike; if we just try hard enough, are pushed relentlessly, or are exposed to an egalitarian classroom setting, we have an equal shot at excellence.

Yet, gifted individuals are different. With IQ scores at least two standard deviations above the norm, they not only acquire knowledge more rapidly, they think more divergently and with more complexity, and possess a range of emotional traits, such as heightened sensitivities. These are innate characteristics; they are unrelated to achievement or success. While many gifted individuals actually work passionately and diligently at what they pursue, this stems from an intrinsic desire to learn, create, or perfect what is meaningful to them. Internally motivated, if a topic sparks their interest, they will persevere. Otherwise, they may turn in a lackluster or even inadequate performance. In fact, many gifted individuals are underachievers who fail to live up to their potential. Confusing overachieving with giftedness diminishes the needs of gifted children, and overlooks the many underachieving or minimally challenged students misperceived as successful due to their adequate or even exceptional grades
So, what’s wrong with overachievement?

Some gifted children are overachievers, just like children who are not gifted. Highly motivated children and adults who strive to achieve their goals are driven, ambitious, and hard-working. They learn discipline and focus, and set high standards for themselves. These are necessary qualities in successful adults, and certainly admirable in children. Yet, the concept of overachieving implies going above and beyond what is expected and necessary. Overachievement in children often stems from outside pressure, a need to please others, or underlying insecurity. While they may experience a fleeting sense of accomplishment, when the excitement quickly fades, they feel compelled to pursue the next challenge. Their self-worth rests on validation from others, being the best, or gaining recognition. This may lead to burnout, extreme perfectionism, or feelings of despair when goals are not met.

The emotional burden that comes from overachievement is too high a price to pay. Although playing by the rules, healthy competition, and striving toward an external goal are all necessary learning experiences, they fail to instill an intrinsic drive. Harsh demands, unrealistic goals, and excessive coercion pressure children to achieve beyond what is developmentally appropriate. Encouragement to achieve in a supportive, challenging, stimulating learning environment is the most effective tool for enhancing any child’s academic success. It fuels intrinsic curiosity about learning, and avoids the pitfalls of achieving merely to conform, gain approval and bolster self-esteem. Finding this balance should foster continued academic success and interest in learning.

Chua, Amy. (2011). Battle hymn of the tiger mother. Penguin Group: New York.
Gladwell, Malcolm. (2011). Outliers: The story of success. Little, Brown & Co.: New York.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

So I’m gifted…Now what?

So what if I’m gifted?  Will others expect more from me?  Will I be seen as different? What if I don’t want to be gifted anymore?

When children, adolescents, or even adults, learn they are gifted, they can be flooded with a range of emotions. Initially there may be excitement and pride. Eventually, discomfort, anxiety and embarrassment may creep in. And a range of questions usually arise. 

What does this all mean? How will it affect my friendships, school work, or future career? What will my family and friends expect from me? Will this be more of a burden than a benefit?

In reality, identification of giftedness, following rigorous psychoeducational screening, serves to validate what most gifted individuals and their families already know. Screening is usually provided to determine whether mandated enriched/accelerated academic services are necessary; otherwise, it rarely would be offered. But in addition to opening doors to educational opportunity, the label itself carries substantial weight, and signifies a shift in self-perception. The validation and recognition may be a relief; the presumed additional expectations may seem a burden. 

What are some of the questions and concerns that accompany gifted identification?

In childhood: Children may not understand what being gifted means. They already sense that they are different, learn more quickly than their peers, or become easily bored in class. They may worry that this new label will isolate them from friends, force them to tackle extra busy work, or get bullied if they are seen as too smart. They may feel superior about their abilities and the ease with which they learn, but also feel confused and guilty about their pride. Since gifted children often possess a strong sense of morality, it may seem unfair that others lack the talents that they naturally possess. When family or teachers convey high expectations, gifted children might feel pressured to achieve, and become anxious and self-critical of even minor mistakes, or give up altogether. Even without external pressure, those gifted children who are already high achievers may interpret their gifted status as a mandate to aim for success, regardless of the costs. 

In adolescence: Teens struggle with ambivalence about being gifted. At a time when friendships are paramount, many would rather ignore academics and focus instead on having fun. They may worry that being gifted will exclude them from the desired peer group and make them seem “nerdy” and unattractive. Girls, in particular, may hide their talents to remain appealing to boys. Teens also may react to real or perceived pressure from parents or teachers to “live up to their potential.” While some rise to the challenge, others may become anxious and strive for perfection. Still others may rebel, perform poorly, and distance themselves from any association with their academic abilities. As high school graduation approaches, gifted teens struggle with how to choose a career path that will satisfy the expectations of others, yet meet their personal goals. In short, many gifted adolescents are acutely aware of the abilities they possess, and feel conflicted about how to fulfill their potential without either alienating or disappointing others.

In adulthood: Many gifted adults’ abilities were overlooked when they were children. They may have suspected their differences all along, but never received validation that their self-perception was accurate. Often, recognition of giftedness occurs without formal testing, and follows instead from an awareness that their complex thinking skills, innovative and creative solutions, or unusually quick grasp of difficult material outpaces their peers. Many gifted adults only suspect that they are gifted when their own gifted children show signs of exceptional ability and are undergoing evaluation. Recognition of their abilities enables acceptance of how their interests, drives and passions may have left them feeling out of sync with many of their peers. It also helps them appreciate that some of the behaviors that seem to cause them personal distress or interpersonal conflict are actually emotional and behavioral characteristics associated with giftedness, such as emotional intensity, overexcitabilities, impatience, non-conformity, introversion or perfectionism.

Acceptance of what it means to be gifted takes time. It is an individual process, and carries different implications for everyone. Parents and teachers need to appreciate that conflicting emotions can accompany the label of “gifted.” Recognizing these concerns, fears and misconceptions is the first step toward overcoming roadblocks to their academic, social and personal goals.