Illinois Association for Gifted Children

JULY 2020 IAGC QUESTION OF THE MONTH: What skills are important to cultivate in my gifted child?

07/27/2020 6:52 AM | Anonymous member

This month, Dr. Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, Director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University, offers insightful perspective for parents who are looking to support and nurture children with advanced learning needs...

Top Ten Skills to Cultivate in Your Gifted Child - Part 1

Paula Olszewski-Kubilius

I am often asked by parents what are the most important “things” to do for a gifted  child? Over the years, I have developed this list of characteristics that I have come to believe are some of the most important ones for parents to cultivate so as to help gifted children realize their dreams (notice I said “their dreams” and not their parents’). My list is based on the research literature in the field and my own experience as an administrator of gifted programs and as a parent.

Enjoyment of solitude. A consistent finding within the research literature on giftedness is the value of developing the ability to enjoy spending time alone.  Historical accounts of the lives of individuals who make creative contributions to society reveal that often, this alone time was a result of difficult circumstances. But, whether self-imposed or the result of external conditions, this alone time was used productively by individuals – to pursue independent projects, read broadly, write in journals, practice musical instruments, make art, or study. How can parents cultivate enjoyment of solitude in children? It is challenging in current times with Facebook and texting as children can literally always remain connected to friends. Modeling of independent pursuits helps as well as encouragement and facilitation of a quiet place to do their work, study, practice, engage in hobbies, dabble in new interests, or just retreat to for reflective thought. Parents can stress the importance of “down time” to recharge and rejuvenate, set rules or guidelines for phone and internet use during family dinners or events, and show through their actions, how to balance productive use of solitary time with social activities.

Resiliency. One of the important facts about highly successful individuals is that though they achieved great notoriety for their creative contributions to society, their paths there were not always easy. Many encountered significant challenges in childhood including loss of a parent, instability in their family life, or poverty or racism. Often they found refuge in their talent domain—playing music, writing stories, or reading broadly and voraciously. And, even when they were in their professional careers, their success was not instant or consistent. They typically had significant failures along the way including loss of a job, work that was rejected or panned by critics, or business ventures that did not succeed. Yet, they came back from these failures and persevered. Children need to know that success and failure often go hand and hand. In fact, you often cannot get more of one without more of the other. We want to encourage our children to take risks and to see so called “failures” as opportunities to learn and improve. As parents, we can do that by modeling risk taking and effective coping with set backs and “bumps on the road”. 

Optimism. Related to resiliency is what psychologist Maureen Neihart refers to a one’s explanatory style—or how individuals explain their success or failure. Neihart says that explanatory style has three dimensions—permanence (whether the cause of an event is viewed as temporary or enduring forever), pervasiveness (projecting causes across many situations), and personalization (whether I or an external event is responsible for the loss or failure). Children who are optimistic are more likely to believe that setbacks or failure are temporary and will persevere because they have hope that things will change for the better—and they can bring about some of that change (e.g. study harder). Optimists also tend to limit the effects of failures rather than blowing them into major catastrophes. In response to a bad grade, an optimist may say that their teacher has high expectations or the test was very hard rather than concluding that all teachers are unfair. As a result, an optimistic child can find a solution and way to improve the outcome rather than dissolving into hopelessness. Neihart says that pessimists blame themselves when things go badly and do not take credit when they work out well. Optimists do the opposite. They take credit for successes and recognize the (at least partial) role of outside factors in disappointing outcomes. The goal is to help children be accountable for their failures and address any areas of weaknesses but without losing confidence to try again. The good news is that optimism can be taught!!! Parents can help children by actively shaping their explanatory style for successes and failures—e.g. teaching them to entertain multiple explanations for a poor performance. 

Being an Autonomous, Autodidactic Learner. This includes a number of skills such as being able to initiate learning independently, setting individual learning goals and following through on them, identifying what one needs to learn and do in order to complete a project, being able to monitor and evaluate the success of one’s learning, and accessing the appropriate resources needed for learning, including seeking help from knowledgeable others. While the learning that takes place in school is critical to developing the talents of gifted children, much of it is determined and dictated, at least in part, by a teacher, and often is on topics children need to study, but may not particularly engage or interest them. Outside of school is often where passions can be pursued and the ability and desire to learn things that are not required for school, coupled with the motivation to pursue these assiduously, are critical for the development of talent.  Parents can help by modeling autonomous learning, helping children decide on projects and goals, and connecting children to activities that allow them to practice independent learning (e.g. competitions). They might also help by alerting teachers to a child’s significant interests and pursuits outside of school, thereby giving the teacher an opportunity to capitalize on and connect learning at home with learning within school.

Learning to Deal with Stress and Control Anxiety. Any athlete performing at a national level or performing artists such as dancers, musicians, actors, will tell you that a key to their success is learning to deal with stress and anxiety. It is not that elite performers do not feel stress and anxiety, they practice and develop techniques (e.g. breathing to reduce physical manifestations of stress or anxiety ) and strategies (e.g. over-preparation) to reduce it. Often, they are taught these techniques by coaches, sports psychologists, other performers, mentors and teachers. The performing arts schools, such as music conservatories, and training facilities for elite athletes recognize both the positive and negative aspects of stress on performance and how to capitalize on or mitigate these so as to enable peak performances. In the academic domains, we do very little of this even though scientists, literary scholars, mathematicians, and business entrepreneurs are often similarly involved in competitive (e.g. for grants, contracts, awards) or performance (e.g. presentations) situations. Also, there is stress and anxiety that comes from producing creative work, such as a story, piece of art, original song, a scholarly paper, and having it judged and evaluated by the gatekeepers, journal-reviewers, art critics, book reviewers, in a field. In short, everyone who works at the highest levels of achievement and creativity will encounter and need to learn to deal with stress and anxiety. As parents and teachers, we can begin early to help children with these feelings so that rather than shying away from a challenging course that requires oral presentations, choosing not to run for a school office because it involves making a public speech, or not submitting a story or art piece to a competition, students embrace these as opportunities to learn and view them as stepping stones towards the accomplishment of their goals. (See Neihart’s book cited above for more on this).

Duckworth, A, L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007, 92, 1087-1101.

Duckworth, A. L., Quinn, P. D. & Tsukayama, E. (2012). What No Child Left Behind leaves behind: The roles of IQ and self-control in predicting standardized achievement test scores and report card grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104, 439-451.

Neihart, M. (2008). Peak Performance for Smart Kids. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Olszewski-Kubilius, P. (2013). Top ten skills to cultivate in your gifted child: Part 1. Parenting for High Potential, 2 (5), 2-3.

Olszewski-Kubilius, P. (2013). Top ten skills to cultivate in your gifted children: Part 2. Parenting for High Potential, 2 (6), 2-3.

Siegle, D. (2012). The Underachieving Gifted Child. Prufrock Press.


Learn about 5 more important skills to cultivate in your gifted child in Part II of Dr. Olszewski-Kubilius's "Top 10 Skills to Cultivate in Your Gifted Child," which will be shared in our August 2020 "Question of the Month" Blog!

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