Dark Side of Gifted Ed

Teaching gifted and high-achieving students comes with some baggage. Many teachers feel like gifted students are a dream since most have incredible work ethics and plenty of intrinsic motivation. Since I have begun incorporating SEL strategies into my everyday classroom practices, I have learned that there is a dark side to teaching the gifted. A significant population of my students have poor coping skills and do not handle failure well.

I have been taking a playlist approach to my 10th and 11th-grade instructional program this year. Students are given a menu of options and I measure how much they do. This has caused them more stress than I anticipated and I am currently re-thinking this approach. Last year, too many of our students turned work in late. As a faculty, we decided to change the culture by not accepting late work.  As an incentive, we offer a 20% bonus on each assignment that is turned in before the deadline. For the first major project, 72% of my students turned in their work early. Approximately a quarter of my students, 43 out of 167, did not turn their work in at all.

After reading their reflections on the project, I realized that a large percentage of my students need more support in managing their time. I have been using goal-setting strategies with my students for years. This NPR story shows how reflection and goal-setting eliminated the achievement gap in a college composition class. I asked my students to read the story and then answer the following questions. How often do you write down specific goals and strategies that help you organize your time and workload? Could writing down what prevents you from completing work and connecting your daily efforts to goal-setting help you become a better student? What type of anxiety do you feel when dealing with multiple and competing deadlines?

Their answers were startling and shocking. Two-thirds of my “gifted” students rarely or never write a to-do list to manage their workload. They said things like…

I hardly ever write down my goals or strategies I usually just have to remember or I have everything planned in my head which actually gets me more stressed out. I do think if I write out my plans every day I could be less stressed out but I’m a procrastinator and I just can’t manage my time at all. I get crying anxiety when all my emotions overwhelm me at once and I can’t control them at all.

and

I do not write down specific or ANY goals and strategies to help me organize my time and workload. I believe that if I had something that reminded me on the daily about work and due dates my work ethic could improve greatly. Setting goals will make me want to achieve them and do better so that I can be a better not only person but a scholar. When I see that I have work due I stress out a lot. I rush everything and nothing comes out right. I stress about it at school and I get a horrible headache just thinking about how my grade would go down the drain. But when I get home I just forget everything and I never do anything.

and

I usually don’t write down my goals or strategies that help organize my workload because I’m already organized and most of my thoughts on procedures and goals are mental so I do not have to write them down. Yes, I think if I wrote everything down that slows down my work or prevents me from doing better it will help me realize what I need to do so I can work better. I usually feel like I won’t be able to finish anything and I always feel like a failure.

On the bright side, one-third of my students almost always write down what they need to accomplish. They said things like this…

I often write down my specific goals in an agenda and I strategize my workload on what is due the earliest. For example, I would finish my English homework first because it’s my first period. I don’t write down the things that prevent me from working and but I do set goals for myself to become a better student. Sometimes I have a list in my head and I write down what I need to do on a checklist to prioritize my time. When I deal with multiple deadlines, I begin to freak out thinking about what I need to do all at once. I make a list of what I need to do and sometimes do the easiest assignments first to get them out of the way.

and

I write down goals often. Some of these goals include getting my work done and getting my grades up. I have tried writing what keeps me from doing my work down. I believe that you could change your habits and become a better student, but if you don’t want to, nothing is going to change. You have to want everything. You can’t just want to change for yourself. What keeps me going is wanting to change my habits so that I can look into my mom’s eyes and not feel guilty, to not feel like I am letting her down. I give myself time to complete deadlines its when I decide not to do it that it gets me. 

and

I have a big ¨vision board” in my room in which I put my goals, the stuff I want to have, the people I want to meet, the amount of money I want to make, the places I want to travel to, the car I want to have, and pretty much anything. The law of attraction says if you set a goal and remind yourself of it, you will get it. and I think that’s 100% true. My goals are very long term, like going to Harvard or becoming a doctor but in order to achieve that I have to maintain a good grade point average and be a good student. So I try to do my homework and manage my time wisely so homework doesn’t take any more time that it has to. I am a very organized person. I have a daily planner in which I put in all my assignments of the day. When I get home I prioritize and rewrite the assignments in order that I have to do them.

How do I teach the former group of students to be more like the latter?

8 thoughts on “Dark Side of Gifted Ed”

  1. Great post, Scott. My daughter is in a GT placement and we have definitely noticed anxiety and her becoming easily frustrated when something does not come easily to her (math, violin, etc.). I have tried talking with her about this at calm times and we try to focus on learning over grades. However, I’m going to share parts of this post with both my kids and see what they think.

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  2. I think too things when reading this.
    Many gifted people/ students tend to be perfektionists, not driven by other peoples expectations or timetables, but more of the task itself -as long as it make sense to them. They are project-oriented, not time-oriented. It is very difficult then to draw the limitline of how good the result should be to be perfectly done. To be working towards a deadline means for them to be in a constant state of compromise with your inner picture of the perfect result.
    The second thought is that these students have not needed to out much effort in school in loner graders. They might loose there selfconfidence confronted with the new experience of not be able to keep everything in the head, or to actually have to work hard. This can result in a personal lifecrise.
    In both cases I belive that cognitive training, lifesience, philosophy and psycology should be introduced very early, already in primeschool.

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  3. Executive functioning is a challenge for many gifted. Having a hard and fast due date was too much of a challenge for many of your students and unnecessary to start with. Teaching your students that gifted can learn executive functioning, or at least can learn how to get help with it would be more productive. Many gifted adults use assistants to help them keep on track. Knowing what you are capable of and how to compensate if you can’t is important. But punishing students for a skill they are incapable of is cruel.

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    1. Hi Darleen, Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your advocacy for gifted students but object to your characterization of due dates as being unnecessary. These students are going to leave my 10th-grade class and experience another 50 or more teachers during their high school and college academic journey. I would bet that most of them will have hard and fast due dates in their classes. The sooner these students accept the reality of deadlines and learn time management skills, the better off they will be.

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    2. I don’t remember your article saying you were teaching high age students, so I assumed you were teaching elementary aged students. How did these students make it to high school without learning time management? I’d be angry with the system that was ineffective at teaching executive functioning and passed these students on to you.

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  4. Great article! I see my elementary gifted students behaving in that manner. I try my best to instill organizational skills at a young age because I know the work load they will have in the upper grades. The students think because they are gifted it isn’t hard for them but it is! Thank you for sharing your knowledge and making me feel I am on the right track with my students.

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    1. Executive functioning can be taught. Not all gifted will be able to do it on their own, but they can learn strategies to help them with it, such as setting reminders on automatic devices. Defining where their system breaks down may be necessary.

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  5. Scott, I’m going to pretend like I don’t teach down the hall from you. Ahem, Dr. Petri, I have noticed this problem–time management, project management–frequently among my gifted students. That same frisson that accompanies their great ideas when brainstorming an essay topic becomes a lightning storm when they must draw multiple projects to a close. I’m seeing missed work from many of them, students that normally perform at high levels. When I started using the Remind app for weekend assignments or to remind students that a test is coming on the next day, my completion rates skyrocket. This is clearly a sign of time management deficits and not “laziness.” Even what we might call laziness is procrastination, itself a time management strategy, simply not a very good one. I know all about the power of procrastination or the hand-off from “Now Duncan” to “Future Duncan.” I employed it frequently during my post-graduate program last year and suffered as a result.

    To the degree that inter-curricular lesson plans can be adopted, particularly in elementary schools but also in smaller SLC, pilot schools, or magnet programs, there are two birds helping to move one stone (to completely mangle a cliche). As an ELA teacher, if I am helping them write the essays that you assign, we have a better chance of helping students keep up. It’s important to never denigrate students with the notion of laziness if I may flog that dead horse. After all, commercial and large-scale corporate employers pay top dollar to Project Management Institute (PMI) credentialed project and program managers who are the “declutterers” of our Fortune 500 companies.

    Time management may start in elementary school but it certainly doesn’t end there and anything we can do as teachers to help our students during K-12 may not only make them more productive, if they become good enough at it, we may have trained them for a career.

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