Illinois Association for Gifted Children
Dr. Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, Director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University, suggests ten important skills for parent to cultivate in their children with gifts and talents. Five of these skills were shared in our July 2020 blog, "Top Ten Skills to Cultivate in Your Gifted Child - Part I." This month, Part II includes 5 more characteristics that are important for parents who wish to support their gifted children.
Top Ten Skills to Cultivate in Your Gifted Child - Part II
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.
Grit. This is a concept that Angela Duckworth, a psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania, has developed and promoted. She defines it as “perseverance and passion for long term goals” (p. 1087). Grit involves working assiduously in a talent domain over time, including maintaining effort despite failures, plateaus, and setbacks. Grit may emerge early in a young aspiring musician or artist or develop later as a high school student commits to the study of medicine or political science. How does one develop or cultivate grit? While research has not specifically focused on this, finding one’s passions seems to be key, which takes time and deliberate searching. Parents can help by exposing children to a wide range of fields and topics of study through informal (e.g. trips to museums) and formal learning experiences (e.g. enrichment courses). We do this a lot with young children but it is important to also help older children investigate fields and careers to find their passions. Also, helping students understand that people who make creative contributions to society were “in it for the long haul” and that creative breakthroughs do not come out of the blue without commitment and hard work over extended periods of time, is also crucial. Children can begin to get a picture of this by reading about the lives of eminent individuals and seeing that there were ups and downs, great triumphs and some failures along the way—and that the development of their abilities and talents is a lifelong journey.
Self-control. This is another characteristic that Duckworth talks about. She defines it as the regulation of behavior, attention and emotion to meet personal goals and standards. Self-control is what enables a student to stay focused on a day-to-day basis on meeting the many smaller goals that are involved in reaching big life goals. Self-control is involved in working consistently to get good grades in a course even if it is not that interesting and choosing to do homework instead of socializing with friends, even though the latter is much more fun. It boils down to a willingness to do what it takes to “get the job done” even if the activity (e.g. practice) is not always that enjoyable. Self-control involves being able to delay immediate gratification so as to remain focused on a larger goal. This is an important skill to model and teach your child. There are many things in life that we all do that are a “means to an end” --- a necessary step on the path towards more autonomous and enjoyable activities. Too many gifted children miss out on challenging and engaging opportunities because they are unwilling to work to get the grades that are needed to qualify or be selected for them. Like it or not, teachers will often choose students who are willing to work hard and make the most out of a special class or opportunity rather than a child who is very bright but does not demonstrate effort. In extreme cases, when the child’s educational environment does not match his or her ability, parents must advocate strongly for changes in curricula or programming rather than allow children to under-achieve or opt out of “boring” or “slow pace” classes completely.
Finding meaningfulness in learning. Del Siegle, a leading expert on underachievement of gifted children, emphasizes that “making school more meaningful is among the most promising strategies for reversing academic underachievement.” Even if your child is achieving satisfactorily, making learning more personal and meaningful can only enhance motivation and commitment. How do we do this as parents? One way is to encourage students to pursue their interests outside of school via formal programs or learning on their own at home. Rather than directly teaching your child, parents can assume a supportive role, providing resources, supplies and encouragement, and connecting children to other adults (e.g. career professionals) who can be helpful to them. Parents can request that teachers help students understand why learning something is important and will be helpful to them in the future (e.g. How might I use algebra or geometry in the future? Why is it important to understand world history?). With a little bit of research on their own, parents can help students understand the connection between subjects in school and future careers and professions or how understanding in one subject is necessary as a prerequisite for more advanced study later.
Developing appropriate attitudes towards work and ability. We all know that ability and talent has to be combined with a strong work ethic and commitment to study or practice in order for students to be successful in achieving their career and life goals. Carol Dweck, a psychologist, has popularized the idea of mindsets or beliefs about intelligence and ability. According to her, a growth mindset or a belief that ability, including intelligence, can change, grow, and improve with practice and study, is crucial for sustaining a long-term commitment to the development of one’s talents. In contrast, a fixed mindset, or a belief that one is born with a certain amount of ability or intelligence that is fixed and immutable, can hinder performance and achievement even among the most talented individuals. Research by Dweck and others shows that children who hold a growth mindset about their abilities and intelligence will persist through difficult times and rebound from setbacks (e.g. poor grades, not being selected for a program)more readily. How do parents cultivate a growth mindset? According to Dweck, the messages we give children about their performances and grades, specifically the type of praise, can influence their beliefs. Praise that focuses on recognizing and rewarding hard work and feedback that is centered on improvement and growth will promote healthy attitudes towards both ability and effort. (You can read more about how parents can use praise to reinforce a growth mindset in Dweck’s book, Mindset, Ballantine Publishers).
Working on the Edge of One’s Competency. This is one of Maureen Neihart’s 7 habits of top performers. It refers to being willing to work at something for which success or high achievement is not guaranteed. We all know the importance of challenge in producing growth. Athletes improve their game when they play against better athletes. Musicians improve their technique when they perform with other highly skilled musicians. Students improve their arguments when engaged in discussions with other students who challenge their ideas and assertions. It is not always easy, however, to put yourself into situations that require you to work on the edge of your existing competencies and many students steer clear of these, preferring to stay doing what they are good at and what they are confident they will succeed at. Neihart suggests that parents help children identify reasonable risks to take in terms of opportunities to grow and improve significantly, help children identify ways to prepare for the challenge, and facilitate reflection on the outcome afterwards. Getting comfortable with risk-taking is critical to enabling a child to reach the highest levels of performance they desire.
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.
Illinois Association for Gifted Children
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