Parent Question: Since my child entered middle school, she doesn’t seem challenged academically. What advice can you give me and my child’s teacher?
Two authorities in the gifted field provide a response.
Dr. Maureen Niehart: A sportswriter once said that a few early failures in life take the pressure off an undefeated record. One of the problems that can arise when children have work that is too easy is that they don’t learn to take risks. My concern for your daughter is that she might become so accustomed to success without effort that she develops unrealistic expectations regarding what real challenge requires. Research about patterns of achievement among gifted women in particular suggests that risk-taking experiences may help combat hesitancy and withdrawal among bright girls. Challenging work asks students to take the intellectual and social risks necessary for high achievement, leadership, and a satisfying life. Confronting hard work and the fears that come with the possibility of defeat builds confidence and a can-do attitude.
There are many ways to introduce challenging content into your daughter’s studies. For instance, she might be able to advance a grade level or two in one or more of her strongest subjects. Or perhaps her teacher can compact the curriculum in some areas in order to free up time for your daughter to pursue an independent study of her own or to participate in one of the advanced courses that are available online. You may enjoy reading Betty Walker and Marilyn Mehr’s The Courage to Achieve: Why America’s Brightest Women Struggle to Fulfill Their Promise, Simon and Schuster, 1992.
Dr. Vicki Stocking: There are a number of reasons your daughter may not appear to be sufficiently challenged by her middle school classes. Some of these have to do with school characteristics such as the size of classes and length of class periods or the focus on competition rather than collaboration. Other reasons include teacher characteristics such as enthusiasm for the material.
However, even if your daughter is in a class that affords her appropriate feedback and support from the teacher in a learning environment that is conducive to engagement, she still may not be appropriately challenged. Middle school students are cognitively and socially complex. Although gifted girls are intellectually ready for the kinds of academic challenges offered by middle school, they may not be interested. Middle schools offer a wider range of extracurricular and social activities than elementary schools, so gifted girls may prefer to develop new interests and friendships rather than pursue academic activities. This can be a critical point in the education of gifted girls; teachers and parents need to work hard to create opportunities that allow bright girls to be engaged in schoolwork and social activities.
The key is to be in close contact with your daughter’s teachers to make sure they are aware of her interests and skills. These conversations are also a good way for you to learn about your daughter from the perspective of her teachers. It could be that she’s more challenged and engaged in the classroom than she’s telling you.
Maureen Niehart, PsyD, clinical child psychologist in private practice, has worked with gifted children and their families for more than twenty years.
Vicki Stocking, PhD, Director of Research, Duke Talent Identification Program, teaches child and adolescent psychology at Duke University.
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