You get the letter from school in the mail. A teacher has identified your child as potentially "gifted" and wants to send him or her for further testing and evaluation. Flash forward: the tests are completed, your child is a whiz, and enrichment classes will become a part of his regular school routine.
What wonderful news! It was in my family. Until all of a sudden, it wasn't anymore. Instead of my seven-year old feeling enhanced self-confidence and pride in her intellectual and creative abilities, what I began to see was a newly anxious little girl who cried over imperfect scores on her handwriting test and wanted to give up books "forever" when she found out she placed second in her class' monthly reading contest.
Somehow, being praised for being "smart" at home seemed like old hat to her, but the more public label of being "gifted" at school created a level of pressure that quickly became overwhelming. My once-eager learner no longer wanted to try new things, for fear of not being good at them right away. My I'm-too-busy-to-slow-down girl lingered endlessly at the homework table, eraser-in-hand, until her lowercase "e" hit the dotted lines "just so" on the Zaner-Bloser handwriting tablet. My self-confident little go-getter told me she "wasn't smart anymore" and even "hated herself" after getting one item wrong on a math test.
Wow. Talk about being overwhelmed. I couldn't believe what I was seeing and hearing -- her plummeting sense of self-worth was devastating to us both. I did what any good parent would do; first, I blamed and berated myself (gee, wonder where she got those tendencies from?) Then, I reached out to the Internet. As I read up on gifted children, I learned about many characteristics common to gifted children and one challenge in particular that I will follow through on right away: fostering a growth mindset.
What is a "growth mindset?" First, let me explain the "fixed mindset," as defined by cognitive psychologist Carol Dweck. Gifted children, lauded for years by relatives, friends and teachers about their natural intelligence and innate abilities, often develop the belief that everything they do should come out well and that their smarts alone are enough to guarantee that things will come easy. In the mid-to-late elementary school years, when class work and extracurricular tasks begin to require effort and genuine persistence, many gifted children first start to doubt their intelligence. Their fixed mindset dictates that if they are not the best, don't score a perfect 100 percent, or can't find a solution easily and immediately, then they must be stupid, bad and worthless. All-or-nothing thinking, as it turns out, is a hallmark of some of the greatest young thinkers out there. It can also be a deal-breaker to their otherwise unlimited potential.
How can parents and teachers counter the fixed mindset and replace it with a growth one?
1. Play up personal strengths
In a competitive society, many kids strive from an early age toward the superlatives. They want to be the best, the fastest, the smartest, and they want to do it all first. If being the best is your child's fixed priority, help him re-structure his focus to achieving personal strengths and celebrating individual accomplishments.
2. Play down competitions
While there will always be those who talk about preparing kids for a dog-eat-dog world, when it comes to perfectionistic children, there is no need to emphasize competition. You can be sure that these kids are well aware of their competitors and are knocking themselves out to be on top. Help take the pressure off of your child by providing opportunities for personal bests and group achievement. Take the focus off of contests and scores and help your child instead prioritize the effort he puts toward achieving his goals.
3. Provide opportunities to try out new things
Perfectionists are often "risk evaders," who fear trying something new, in the event that they are not immediately and effortlessly good at it. Offer your child many opportunities to try new activities, sports and projects without the pressure of having to be good at them right away.
4. Encourage practice
Whether it is math problems or a new piano piece, emphasize to your child that practice is the best way to become good at something. Gifted and perfectionistic kids benefit from realizing that they do not have to excel at something right out of the starting gate and that practicing skills is not a sign of weakness, but rather a path toward excellence.
5. Celebrate mistakes
That's right. My daughter looks at me like I'm a nut when I do this, but I make a big deal out of my own mistakes, letting her know that it is only through making errors that I have had the opportunity to learn and grow. One of the best activities she and I ever did together was searching the Internet for facts and figures on how often Babe Ruth struck out. Yes, even the home run king made very public errors in front of huge crowds. For my little baseball fan, if the Babe can mess up and still be a champion, so can she!
6. Idealize improvement
When my daughter's karate teacher wanted to promote her to the next level in her class, she was hesitant. She couched her resistance cleverly, telling me that she didn't want to move up because the kids in the more advanced group were so much bigger than she was. Ever the protective and safety-conscious mom, I went along initially. With additional thought and careful consideration, however, it became clear to me that her fear in advancing was not about size, but rather about not being good enough. With the growth mindset in our heads, her sensei and I joined forces to champion the improvements she made each day in the advanced class and to make incremental accomplishments more important than instant goal achievement.
7. Praise hard work and effort
Probably the most valuable lesson I have taken from my research on gifted and perfectionistic children is to focus my praise on my daughter's hard work, efforts, and persistence rather than on outcomes, scores and results. Now, instead of responding just to the straight A's on her report card, I compliment her specifically on the hard work she showed throughout the marking period to achieve her goals.
Signe Whitson is the author of three books, including the newly released Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Aged 5-11 to Cope with Bullying. Visit her website at www.signewhitson.com, Like her on Facebook or Follow her on Twitter @SigneWhitson.