Monday, June 18, 2012

4. Teach Your Gifted and Talented Teens to Prioritise

10 Ways Parents of Gifted Learners can support them in high school (continued)

“This is madness! I can’t cope with all this! They’ve got it wrong, I’m not gifted.” (But they haven’t got it wrong at all.)
 “I need to spend more time on this otherwise I’ll not get an A.”(Then they don’t hand it in at all.)
“I ran out of time in the exam – that lost me a lot of points.”
“I don’t have enough time/ can’t finish it by then” (followed by “Can you write the teacher a note?” or “I’m sick, I need a day off!”).
“Don’t bug me! I work better under pressure! I’ve got a whole week to finish that.”(And they do!)

Sometimes our gifted teens are so like us it is scary, and sometimes it seems as though they are so different they may as well be another species - which is also scary!  Do you find yourself frequently running late, with deadlines that you know you can’t possibly meet? Or are you a super-organised person who works well to deadlines and has almost everything completed ahead of schedule? If so, were you always able to do this, or did you begin to master that skill as an adult? I’d suggest it was the latter.  Some gifted teens pick up these skills almost by osmosis, but many don’t.  We can’t assume that because they are gifted they will know how to prioritise and manage their time.

Stress and work overload can often be part and parcel of giftedness for several reasons:

Gifted and talented are very different from one another.  Their response to stress of workload can be just as different.

  • Some who are multi-talented are in great demand by teachers; the student who hasn’t yet learned to say ‘no’ can be selected to participate in special programs by several different teachers, none of whom are necessarily aware of that student’s commitments or workload.  These students need help in prioritising.  However, as they mature, some gifted students do thrive on quite a heavy workload. These are the ones who have learned to prioritise, and to say ‘no’ without being aggressive.  But it is important that we parents still keep an eye on their level of commitments and state of health.
  •  Some gifted try to do everything at a level of ‘perfect’, and then become overwhelmed by the amount of perceived work they need to do.  They may crumple under the workload, or procrastinate because the task seems too big, and they are scared of failure; or they may just give up and not attempt it at all.  Perfectionism is a common trait amongst gifted:  it can be the driving force for mastery and excellence, and as such is a healthy trait.  But when perfectionism holds a person back from making the most of their opportunities, or affects their physical or mental health, it becomes unhealthy.  Understanding healthy versus unhealthy perfectionism is so important it is a topic of for future blogs.
  • Some gifted are twice exceptional (2e): they may have identified or even unidentified barriers to learning success such as a poor short term memory or organisational problems.  It is really important that these students have these correctly diagnosed so that they can adopt appropriate strategies to compensate for these barriers, so they can still experience success.  Prioritising will be important for them too.
  • Some haven’t yet grasped the fact that high grades in every subject at secondary school level are no longer something they can easily pull off.  There are sophisticated skills involved that require mastery and a far greater input of time that they previously needed to put in:  for example, research, planning, ‘crafting’ and delivering their assignment in a manner appropriate to the subject domain and with the higher level of thinking that is expected at mastery level.  So they may ignore teacher advice on planning and implementing timelines, and drafts, they wrongly anticipate the depth of work involved and set themselves up for either a last minute panic and/or a lower grade.  The latter of course dents their self-confidence, and instead of realising that it was simply a matter of more work, or working smarter, they begin to doubt their ability to deliver.  

Learning to prioritise is a life skill.  I wish I’d had it when I was a teen!  There is a necessary step prior to prioritising:  Goal setting.  Don’t expect your teen to be enthusiastic about discussing this with you.  But if you can encourage discussion about this with either you or another adult your teen will find it easier to prioritise.

Goals have to be real, and achievable.  Your gifted teen needs to understand that it simply isn’t possible to achieve perfection in every single area of learning.  There aren’t enough hours in a day.  That would be like asking the General Manager of a company to be an outstanding in accountancy, sales, art, engineering, information technology, building maintenance, logistics, distribution, marketing, and advertising. One of the best lessons you can instil into your gifted teen (particularly the perfectionist) is the knowledge that it is okay not to excel in every area.  Support them in making the decisions as to which areas they wish to excel in, and which areas it is okay to just do okay in. Bring your own wisdom to the discussion, but help them make informed choices for themselves.

Successful learners use S.M.A.R.T. goals.  There is plenty on the web about these. Make sure your teen gets involved thinking about goals - it puts them in control, helps to determine priorities and is a key self-motivational tool.

Setting a long term goal might be as simple as “I want to graduate with a report that will make opportunities available to me in the areas that I choose to pursue”.   (It is normal for gifted students not to know in advance what areas they want to pursue because they are often multi-talented.  I believe that secondary school is about keeping doors and options open. However a few gifted students are very clear from an early age exactly what career they wish to pursue). 

Bear in mind that in pursuing goals, life balance is important. There needs to be a balance between homework, study, sports, hobbies, leisure, after school employment where it occurs, and socialising.  As an exercise, lay out a weekly timetable with your teen, filling times for each of these – from early morning through till lights out.  It can put things in perspective and highlight problems if there is an imbalance.  It may be that some of these things need prioritising!

Medium and short term goals spring from the question “what key things do I need to do to achieve my goal?” They need to be specific.  Once some medium-term and short-term goals are established, they need to prioritise, especially in the short term.  Some of the questions your teen can ask themselves in relation to the time they spend daily in specific areas of learning:

What tasks need to be done today / this week?
List tasks: homework and study in different subject areas. With practice, listing can be a mental checklist, but when things are in overload mode, it is better to write them down.
How important is this task, in relation to my goals? 
Know what is most important.  This is the most important skill.  What is a ‘must do’ versus a ‘would be nice to do?’ This is a question I find I’m asking myself on a daily basis, as my mind fills with all sorts of exciting possibilities and options, and I can easily get sidetracked, even though it is justifiable work. Gifted teens can have the same problem.
How much time should I realistically spend on it?
Should I do this to excellence level, or is it a task that I can simply complete to an ‘okay’ level and move on?
Which task comes first?
In what order should I prioritise these? What might need to be moved to the next day / next week?
What steps can I take if I am really overloaded?
Teachers will wear a request for an extension of time if it doesn’t happen too often, and if it isn’t part of a legally required deadline date.  If your overload is caused by serious family or health issues, it’s really important you see the person at school who is responsible for student welfare to discuss the problem.  This might be a Dean or a Head of Faculty – schools differ in who they appoint for student guidance.  They know that sometimes things go wrong, and students sometimes need support.  They are there for you.  Use them.

A word in support of your teen’s teachers:  teachers do teach their students how to prioritise.   Just like you, their parent, your teen’s teachers do try to instil wisdom, but sometimes teens simply don’t listen. Think about it:  what teacher wouldn’t want their students to be successful?  After all,  it makes the teacher look good! Most teachers I have worked with try to instil prioritising as part of time management skills.

Teachers teach prioritising as part of examination technique, for example.  They teach their students to read through the paper first, then to prioritise examination questions in order of their value in marks, and allocate an amount of time to each question. 

For example: 5 questions need to be completed in an hour, and they all require written answers.  Two are worth 30% each, another is worth 20% and two are worth only 10% each. The time spent on each of these questions should reflect the marks.  Sixty minutes in an hour – take off 5 minutes at the beginning for reading the questions, and at the end for checking. That leaves 50 minutes. The two 30% questions should receive about 15 minutes each.  The 20% question equals 10 minutes, and two 10% questions no more than 5 minutes each.  This ensures that the student doesn’t waste time elaborating an answer that only requires a comparatively brief response.

Examination techniques necessarily vary from subject to subject. Many schools have subject tutoring groups prior to examinations.  It’s not your job as parent to know and teach these.  However, try asking your teen in conversation what he knows about examination techniques and how they differ from subject to subject.  Ask him which techniques he finds best.  You will find the answers fascinating, and it’s a subtle way of reinforcing the value of these.  You will find that he will also be quick to recognise those that he should have employed, post examination.  A lesson learned.  Don’t labour it; trust him to remember the lesson.  With luck it won’t happen again.

Prioritising is a skill. It is closely linked with goal setting and time management skills, both of which deserve further time and space.  At my age I still don’t always get prioritising right, but blending it into my daily work has become an instinctive habit which has removed a lot of self-inflicted stress. 

© Sonia White, (M.Gifted Ed).  Author, Teacher, Gifted Education Consultant (2012),  

This article is part of a series on how parents can help their gifted teens get the best out of their high school years.
To read preceding articles on this topic click on the links:

Parents of Gifted:  2. Does your teen know you love them 'warts and all'?

Parents of Gifted:  3. Promote sensible risk-taking

Parents of Gifted: 5. Have High Expectations of Your Gifted and Talented Teen
Sonia White is a parent, teacher, author and gifted education consultant.  She has many years of experience working with gifted learners of all ages.
To receive links for future articles on this topic, you can subscribe to Sonia's blog by email, RSS feed, or as a member of Blogspot. 
Follow Sonia on Twitter: @SoniaWhite_  or Facebook: Sonia White Gifted Education    


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