Have you ever wondered why some children easily manage a complex life including friends, schoolwork, and sports, while others drift through their school years confused and scattered? Or why two students can enter a math class with equivalent ability and end the semester with grades on opposite ends of the spectrum?
Two key skills for personal talent are decisionmaking and self-regulation.
Personal talent, defined as an “exceptional ability to select and attain difficult goals that fit one’s interests, abilities, values, and contexts,” may help explain these puzzling phenomena. Individuals with personal talent know themselves well, make good decisions, and have the skills needed to accomplish their goals. They are resilient and self-disciplined individuals who have developed high levels of context-specific personal talent, which allows them to balance multiple, competing, challenging goals such as working in a demanding profession while successfully parenting, training for a triathlon, or pursuing a hobby.
So, how can parents help their gifted children develop personal talent? As early as middle school, gifted adolescents begin making choices that affect their futures. Hence, the earlier they develop personal talent, the greater the possibility that their choices will lead to satisfying and fulfilling lives. Personal talent consists of specific knowledge, skills, and dispositions that can be mastered by most gifted youth.
Two types of knowledge are needed to develop personal talent: knowledge of self and knowledge of the environment. Self-knowledge is having an awareness of one’s interests, abilities, and values. Parents can help children develop selfknowledge by encouraging them to try many different activities to discover where their interests, abilities, and values lie.
Knowledge of one’s environment is an understanding of how specific situations support or inhibit the accomplishment of personal goals. Gifted individuals need to be aware of the ways that sociocultural conditioning may constrain their aspirations and choices. For example, urban youth may need to understand the ways in which poverty can appear to exclude certain career options, while females may need to understand the ways in which social stereotypes seem to constrain their future choices. Youth should be given the skills they need to negotiate perceived or real conflicts that may exist between their subculture and the culture of the larger society. Parents can help by pointing out stereotyping in the media, modeling unconditioned choices in their own lives, valuing education as a way to move beyond the prescribed norms of a local community, and encouraging autonomy and self-direction.
In addition to understanding cultural influences, the gifted benefit from building knowledge of the unwritten rules of the environments in which they live and interact. Robert J. Sternberg calls this component of personal talent practical intelligence, which is important to develop during adolescence because it helps gifted students get the most out of their education. Individuals who have high levels of practical intelligence know how to get things done in the real world. However, gifted adolescents often have widespread individual differences in practical intelligence. Some need little instruction in this area and seem to understand social systems effortlessly. Others need substantial coaching and direct instruction. Parents can model effective behaviors in order to help their children appreciate and understand different personalities and points of view.
Two key skills for personal talent are decision-making and self-regulation. Individuals with personal talent make good decisions and have the skills to carry them out. Adolescents who are developing expertise in personal talent can manage friendships, demanding coursework, and involvement in extracurricular activities. They can resist peer pressure and persist towards difficult goals in spite of setbacks.
Some gifted children have difficulty developing these skills because of neurological deficits in executive processing. For example, gifted youth with ADHD often have great difficulty with self-regulation. They can set appropriate goals but have difficulty carrying out the steps to achieve them. These children may need individualized interventions by trained counselors to help them develop their personal talent skills.
Residential summer programs for gifted and talented youth provide an excellent environment for developing these skills. Because students who attend these programs have daily opportunities to practice decision-making and self-regulation in a safe and controlled environment.
Parents can help children develop personal talent by encouraging increasing levels of independence and personal decision making during the middle and secondary school years. They can also encourage their children to become involved in extra-curricular or community activities that fit their interests and talents. Teachers can build students’ personal talent skills by providing students with assignment choices, incorporating complex problemsolving activities into classroom instruction, and furnishing opportunities for independent study.
Finally, there are important psychological dispositions that facilitate the development of personal talent. These dispositions include optimism, hope, altruism, hardiness, and resilience. Some individuals have natural tendencies toward these adaptive dispositions. All gifted youth can develop these dispositions, and doing so to the highest levels requires knowledge and skill. They need to understand the dispositions that facilitate wellbeing and success; then they need to consciously adopt those dispositions in order to facilitate goal achievement. For example, optimism, the most-researched disposition that contributes to personal talent, has been shown to facilitate positive outcomes such as superior health and classroom performance. It is a habit of mind, fueled by self-talk, that expects positive outcomes and explains adversity as a temporary, reversible event. An optimistic style prevents feelings of helplessness and encourages the individual to generate new strategies or increased effort when faced with difficulties. The good news is that those with a natural tendency toward pessimism can learn a more optimistic explanatory style.
Parents can influence the development of optimism in their children by providing both support and autonomy. Children feel supported when parents listen to them and express unconditional love. Parents can promote autonomy by providing opportunities for independent decision-making and encouraging the pursuit of individual interests.
Parents can help their gifted children develop strong problemsolving skills, because such skills foster resilience and optimism. Parents can also model optimism in the face of their own setbacks and provide feedback that encourages optimism. For example, if a child fails an algebra test, the parent should avoid making global statements that induce helplessness such as “You’re just like me—no good at math.” Instead, the parent should provide feedback that gives the child the sense that there’s something he or she can do about the situation: “Perhaps you need to develop more effective study strategies for algebra since it is harder than the math you’ve had before.”
In summary, one of the most important things parents can do for their gifted children is to help them develop personal talent by gradually increasing the amount of responsibility they give them for shaping their own lives. Gifted children who develop personal talent are more likely to experience academic success and overall well-being in middle school, high school, and college. They are also more likely to be able to achieve high-level career goals and successfully manage competing priorities in young adulthood. They have the skills they need to maximize their potential and build satisfying lives.
—Sidney M. Moon, PhD
Sidney Moon is Associate dean for learning and engagement in the college of education, director of the Gifted Education Resource Institute, and professor in the department of educational studies at Purdue University. Her research interests include personal talent, underrepresented gifted students, and talent development in the STEM disciplines.
References and Resources
- “Personal Talent,” by Sidney M. Moon, High Ability Studies, Vol. 14, No. 1, June 2003
- Handbook of Positive Psychology, edited by C. R. Snyder and Shane J. Lopez, Oxford University Press, 2005
- Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, by Martin E. P. Seligman, Vintage Books, 2006
- Practical Intelligence in Everyday Life, by Robert J. Sternberg, et al, Cambridge, 2000
- Practical Intelligence for School, by Wendy Williams, et al, Allyn & Bacon, 1997