Although a gifted child may be able to do a homework assignment in half the time it would take their peers, getting them to complete or even start the assignment can sometimes be a struggle. This can lead to report cards that don’t match your child’s aptitude, leaving you wondering if your kid is just plain lazy and what buttons you could push to get them more interested in school.
Frustrating as this may be, experts recommend leading with empathy as you seek answers. Psychologist Ellen Braaten, Ph.D., executive director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program and chair of pediatric neuropsychological assessment at Massachusetts General Hospital, suggests parents look for patterns as to where exactly in the task-completion process their kids struggle. Then, give them grace as they work through the specific challenges that giftedness poses.
“It’s important to identify the specific roadblock that’s hanging them up,” says Braaten, who is the author of Bright Kids Who Couldn’t Care Less: How to Rekindle Your Child’s Motivation which is designed to help parents of gifted children understand and motivate their child. Sometimes, the motivational missing piece may be that they’re anxious about the project, or that they’re struggling with executive functioning. Other times, it may be that they simply don’t know where they are in the process and are feeling overwhelmed. Parents can guide their children through these obstacles once they understand the specific hurdle.
Fatherly spoke with Braaten about identifying the reasons why a child may appear unmotivated and how to create reasonable expectations for gifted kids that don’t cause them to shut down.
You’ve spent a lot of time studying child motivations. How can parents help gifted kids who have trouble getting started on tasks get going on assignments and projects?
There are different reasons that kids may have trouble starting tasks, and parents need to do some digging into where the process is breaking down. Sometimes, kids have trouble identifying the task at hand. Open-ended projects can be particularly challenging because kids just may not know where to start.
But your child likely won’t be able to articulate what’s keeping them from starting a task if you ask that question in an open-ended fashion. So you need to ask questions like, Do you have everything you need? Do you know what you’re doing? Can you describe the project to me or tell me what questions you need to answer on this worksheet?
Once those barriers are mapped out, how can parents help kids build up the capacity to stick with tasks?
Persistence is not only continuing on when things get difficult, but it also includes the ability to gauge where you’re at in the process. A lot of kids will get frustrated because they feel like they’ve been working forever and can’t estimate how close they are to being done. As a parent, you can support your child by helping them figure out where they are at in the process and what they still need to finish.
Gifted kids will get overwhelmed and feel like they don’t have the skillset to finish a task because they made many mistakes along the way, hit a roadblock because they made careless errors, or went down a path they weren’t supposed to. Helping them be persistent is helping them figure out where they are in the process itself.
The tendency for parents to micromanage often comes from their own anxiety and worries about what’s going to become of their child.
The third struggle you identify in motivating gifted kids is a lack of passion or intensity. How can parents strike the balance of motivating kids without nagging them or overly orchestrating their activities?
There are a couple of things that come into play with gifted kids that parents overlook, and one is that they often don’t have that persistence that we’re talking about because they haven’t had to build up that muscle. If a child is gifted and a lot of things come easily to them and all of a sudden they have to do something that is a struggle, they’ll get very easily frustrated. This is where gifted kids will just say, “Well, this is stupid,” or “I can’t do it.”
For most people who aren’t gifted, everything’s a struggle. Everything they had to learn was tough. But if math came easily to you, and reading came easily to you, and suddenly you have to do projects on something that might not be as easy, or you have to understand something outside of your skillset, it can feel overwhelming.
Anecdotally, and from experience, it seems like many parents of gifted or exceptional kids are over-involved or prone to micromanaging. Why is that?
The tendency often comes from their own anxiety and worries about what’s going to become of their child. They want their child to adequately reach their potential, which is an awful lot of pressure to put on a child. And kids who are put under too much pressure will start to refuse to do things.
As a parent, you have to determine whether or not the pushback you’re getting from your child is a reaction to you or if they’re telling you that they don’t have the capacity right now because they haven’t experienced enough of those sorts of frustrating learning experiences to get the job done.
What should parents look for as far as executive functioning is concerned?
Once parents have considered their child’s task management abilities and their capacity to self-monitor their behavior, working memory is the other significant cognitive component of executive functioning.
One of the biggest mistakes I find parents of gifted kids make is encouraging giftedness to becomes a big part of the child’s identity.
But then there are also the more emotional aspects, like trouble inhibiting your behavior or trouble controlling your emotions, that become big issues for some kids who exhibit unhealthy behaviors in the midst of frustration.
It often seems like gifted kids struggle with feeling othered. How do the social-emotional components of executive function conspire against them?
One of the biggest mistakes I find parents of gifted kids make is encouraging giftedness to becomes a big part of the child’s identity. This gets them in trouble socially because they lack the understanding that everybody learns differently and that their way of learning is just as valid as somebody else’s.
Gifted kids will come into many situations thinking that they know the answer — and often, they do. They need help with their frustration about what it’s like being a gifted child when you do know the answer and everybody else in the class needs more time to figure it out.
Is the flip-side to this that they struggle with empathy?
Yes. Socially, it’s important that they grow in what we call theory of mind, which is knowing that other people have feelings and motivations that are different from yours.
Parents can help by asking gifted kids questions that help them build empathy for other kids, like what they think other kids feel in challenging situations. It doesn’t even have to be in their own social relationships. As you’re talking about books they’re reading or movies they’re watching, ask, What do you think the main character is feeling?
Parental expectations for gifted kids tend to be too high.
As gifted kids grow, how should parents adjust their approach to motivation?
The older kids are, the more you need to listen, and the less you should give advice. Older kids tend to developmentally be ready to figure out how to solve problems on their own and learn from previous experiences. They’re primed for a trial-and-error approach to learning, and they also instinctively want to be different from mom and dad and the rest of the adults in their lives.
Since they’re less likely to take advice, you’re better off as a parent talking them through how things are working as opposed to telling them how you think they should do it.
What should parents consider about how their expectations for their gifted kids affect their motivation?
Parental expectations for gifted kids tend to be too high, and I think they also tend to be about the wrong things. Parents can get caught up in wanting their kid to be the best in math and reading and excel in music, and I think that that’s just a lot of pressure for anybody to be under. And sometimes what a child is gifted with is not necessarily a subject area they are passionate about. Make sure you’re aligning your child’s abilities and what brings them meaning and joy.